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Active vs. passive recovery: which is best?

Spoiler alert: they both have an important place in your training plan

Here at Canadian Running, we frequently preach the importance of recovery for runners. After all, you can’t expect to continue running well if you don’t give your body the time to rest and adapt to your workouts. But is which type of recovery is better? Active or passive? As with most things, there are benefits and room in your training for both.

RELATED: The do’s and Don’ts of recovery with physiotherapist Chris Napier

Active vs. passive recovery

First, what exactly is the difference between active and passive recovery? Passive recovery refers to complete rest, and you can think of a full rest day like a good night’s sleep. On days like this, you want to avoid doing anything too strenuous, such as doing heavy yard work, helping a friend move or going on a big hike. In comparison, active recovery is like taking a short nap. It involves doing easy to moderate-intensity activity, like a short, easy run, walking, cross-training, yoga, hiking, or any activity that gets your blood flowing but isn’t too taxing.

Both have benefits

While we often think of rest as meaning little-to-no activity, rest after a hard workout can also mean recovery through movement, which is where active recovery provides a lot of benefits. Doing light, low-impact activity after a hard run can promote blood circulation to your muscles to help them repair and prevent soreness. Enjoying some light movement can also help clear your head, allowing your mind to recover from your workout as well. This way, you’ll be both physically and mentally ready to tackle your next hard session when the time comes.


Cycling is a popular active recovery activity among runners because it’s a similar motion to running but with less impact on your joints. Hiking can also be beneficial, because walking on an incline can strengthen the little stabilizer muscles around your feet and ankles. Doing bodyweight exercises like core work, air squats, lunges and calf raises can also boost circulation while helping to build strength as well, and yoga can be a great way to relieve tension and stretch tight areas in your body. More experienced runners can use easy jogging as an active recovery strategy, but they should be sure to keep the pace slow to allow proper recovery.

While there may be plenty of benefits that come with active recovery, this doesn’t mean that passive recovery, or full rest, doesn’t have a place in your training plan. Particularly for runners who are training many days per week (five or six), having a scheduled rest day is important to prevent over-training and burnout. On top of that, there is nothing wrong with having an unplanned rest day, either. Some days, whether you have a workout or an active recovery session planned, your body may be asking you for an extra full rest day. It could be that you’re feeling more sore or tired than usual, or it could be that your workout the day before didn’t go well. However your body is communicating it to you, you should listen to it. Pushing your body when it really needs rest will only lead to injuries and burnout, and won’t help your performance.

RELATED: Long run recovery: how long does it take?

The bottom line

Both active and passive recovery is important for runners and should be a part of your training plan. It is up to you to listen to your body to know which type of recovery it needs and to prioritize rest so you can continue to run well.

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